The 23-27 New York Knicks are a playoff team, and the time has come for them to prove it. At least, that’s what Arron Afflalo declared in his bold comments to the media following the Knicks’ overtime loss to the Oklahoma City Thunder last week. "My take is that we’re a playoff team, period,” he said, according to Ian Begley of ESPN. "There comes a point in every season where you have to decide to be better or just hover around .500. I feel like we’re better than that. I feel like I’m a better player than what I am. Moving forward, it’s time to show it.”
Afflalo has a point. The season is more than halfway over and the Knicks are currently hovering just outside of the playoff picture. The only way they have a shot at making the postseason is if they start winning games, and soon. If Afflalo is serious about pushing both himself and his teammates towards achieving their playoff potential, however, he should start by turning the mirror on himself. With Carmelo Anthony in and out of the lineup due to lingering ankle and knee issues, the burden of keeping the offense humming has often fallen squarely on Afflalo’s shoulders. The Knicks have lost every game they’ve played without Anthony this season, but last Wednesday’s loss to the Thunder was particularly alarming. It seemed to confirm a trend that had peeked its head out during Anthony’s previous absences, one that, if it persists could have serious consequences for the Knicks’ season. This is that when Anthony is out and Arron Afflalo is the primary scoring option in the fourth quarters and overtimes of close games, the Knicks’ offense stalls out, loses all motion, and devolves into a never-ending series of Affalo isolations.
If you just look at the aggregate statistics, this issue doesn’t seem like such a big deal—after all, Afflalo has shot a solid 47.3% from the field in the fourth quarters and overtimes of the six games that Anthony has sat out. However, a closer look at the game-by-game breakdowns shows that that number is inflated by his virtuosic and not-at-all-representative performance in the Nov. 29th overtime loss at Houston. Remove that game and Afflalo is shooting a mere 40.6% in Anthony-less fourth quarters and overtimes. That’s not a great mark for any player, and certainly not for the one who gets designated to be the closer in tight games.
Looking at the individual game stat lines also reveals the extent to which Afflalo tends to monopolize possessions at the end of games. Afflalo has taken the most shots in the fourth quarters and overtimes of four of the six games without Anthony and has taken more than five shots in each of those instances.
Of course, it’s perfectly normal for teams to turn their offense over to a dominant scorer when the game is on the line. The Knicks often do it with Anthony. The real issue with Afflalo commandeering the offense in late-game situations isn’t necessarily that he takes a lot of shots and misses most of them. You can live with your go-to guy missing on good looks. But that’s the real problem with Afflalo—when he tries to close games out, he often doesn’t appear to distinguish between good and bad looks. Sometimes he does this:
https://giphy.com/gifs/xyzTGW11BZrxe Other times he does this:
And it’s impossible to guess which he’ll do in any given late-game possession. He seems to erratically flit between taking advantage of high-percentage post-up looks close to the basket or open jumpers that emerge from within the offense, like he does in the first clip, and jacking stupid pick-up game heaves like he does in the second.
It’s not entirely fair to give Afflalo all the blame for the offense’s late-game devolution when Anthony sits. Certainly, his teammates play a role too, as they sometimes enable his poor shot selection by throwing him the ball when he isn’t in clear position to score or create and then standing around the perimeter while he isolates. The Knicks have made great strides on offense this season because of their team-wide dedication to moving the ball and cutting into open space, and its not exclusively Afflalo’s fault if his teammates abandon those principles when the game is on the line.
Still, if Afflalo is the go-to guy when Anthony is out, the onus ultimately falls on him to not give in to the subtle pressure to break the offense and force shots whenever given the chance. The issue is still one of his poor shot selection more than anything else, which is so frustrating simply because he does get good looks when he and his teammates work within the flow of the offense. He’s most effective when he can work the block or spot-up from the mid-range and the elbows, and the Knicks’ offense has proven that it creates all of those looks.
Of course, the fact that Afflalo can get good shots when he just works within the flow of the offense is as heartening as it is frustrating. It means that good things are possible and attainable for the Knicks even when Anthony sits. This is a reassuring, because if the Knicks are going to have a shot at making the postseason, they’re going to have to learn how to win games when Anthony sits, something which is almost certain to happen at least a few more times this season. Whether they live or die when Anthony is out is going to be decided largely by Afflalo’s play when everything is on the line, whether he decides to give in to or resist his worst isolation tendencies. That means that he’s going to have to get better about discerning between good and bad isolation opportunities and, above all, commit to working within the flow of the Knicks’ offense at the end of games.
All statistics from NBA.com/Stats